The first of a three-part interview with David Wex and Mark Reeve of Urban Capital. Part two follows next Thursday.
Our interview begins with David Wex, while Mark Reeve will join us in part two. We start by asking David how he got into development, and ask about early projects in Ottawa and Montreal, as well as the current Tableau and River City projects in Toronto.
How did you get your start in the development industry?
There was no family background there. I went to Law school, worked for about a year, and was always interested in development and design, so I spent a couple years trying to get a project under way in the mid 90s. The area that we looked at was King-Spadina because that was the time it [the new zoning bylaw allowing mixed-use redevelopment] was just starting out, and it wasn't even in place yet. Finally met up with some people who were related to Dundee Realty and who did Camden Lofts with them. It was the first one in that area, about the same time as 23 Niagara. That was more Bathurst, so on a little street, very industrial, and from then on we've done more projects. That one took a long time. 48 units probably took 2 years to sell.
That was probably well before the pre-investor surge right?
It was in the late 90s, and a very different world. There was no residential there, so people who bought there were quite happy, and a couple years later the area took off.
How did Urban Capital come together?
Urban Capital is a partnership of myself and Mark Reeve. Mark was working at a large real estate company at the time. I was just doing Camden Lofts, so he wanted to do development. We then got together, did a few projects, one with a company called Intracorp (which is no longer around) in the high rise sector, which really wasn't the biggest success. Intracorp did Absolute Lofts, and then we did Charlotte Lofts together as Urban Capital. We went to Ottawa and did a huge project there, went to Montreal, then did this project Boutique [where this interview too place]. Really by the mid 2000s we were doing projects in all three cities. The thing with Ottawa was that we got a really large piece of property. Ottawa was about 5 years behind Toronto, and this time was about 2000/2001. Toronto was already starting to see some development.
Whereabouts in Ottawa did you build?
In the Byward Market. My family's from there and that's why we went there. We did a 410-unit project, huge for that city, and it went very well. Then in 2003 went to Montreal and did a project there called McGill Ouest. That project was finished in 2006/2007, but had some construction issues which required a lot of work from our contractors. We are just working that one out now in 2011. In Ottawa we've done over 1000 units, delivered or currently under construction. We've delivered 5 buildings, if you consider the East Market buildings, another one in construction, another one in pre-sales, and another two that we're working on. We do about 200 sales a year in Ottawa which is not bad for that city.
How do you find managing a company in so many different markets?
Well you know, thank god for Porter [laughs]! I often can fly to Ottawa or Montreal and be back for a late afternoon meeting here. I try once every two weeks to go to those two cities, but also people in my office fly there as well. We are also looking at Halifax right now too.
What do purchasers look for in those two cities, based on price, architecture, compared to what they look for in Toronto?
Our benefit in those two cities and also in Halifax, is that we bring a Toronto sensibility and a Toronto expertise to those markets. I don't think we realize it, but we have a hugely sophisticated condo market in Toronto in terms of design, branding, and marketing. In all these elements we are light years ahead of other Canadian cities, and I'm sure many American cities too. So when we go to those cities, we bring some of that and we temper it a little for the market. By and large we bring our architects, our designers, our branding, our marketing - full scale - to those cities. We might adjust nuances, architectural style a little bit. The thing we introduced to those cities was high design in small units. The concept of doing 450 sq ft when the smallest thing on the market previously may have been 1000, and the market for the young execitive out of school, 35-40. That typical thing which we have so much of here, we hit that market in those cities.
Which architects or interior designers did you hire for your Ottawa and Montreal projects. Were you bringing your Toronto designers with you at that time?
Core Architects has done all of our buildings in those cities. They have done our interior design as well. In Montreal we had Jean-Pierre Viau do some interior design, but by and large we brought Core for interior design. The market didn't really support or need the high end interior design in those cities, but it is now, so in the future we will be bringing our interior designers which principally have been Cecconi Simone.
Do you find the gap between expectations is shrinking between Toronto and Montreal/Ottawa? You said earlier that the Ottawa market was about 5 years behind us.
The Toronto market now is highly investor driven. That's not the case in Ottawa, which is still a predominantly end-user market. So there's a different market right there. It's also a little more conservative, the choices of finishes is more conservative. Montreal is also a very owner-occupied market, and there isn't as much disposible income in Montreal. It's a smaller market because the typical young francophone isn't buying real estate, culturally speaking, so to me it's about the size of the Ottawa market. Montreal as end users are very demanding. Ottawa is less so.
Urban Capital calls itself an urban regenerator. Tell us about that.
It's about going into areas that formerly have not had residential. Once upon a time they may have been vibrant but the manufacturing went dead. King-Spadina was a classic one. Our interest in River City is another classic one. In Ottawa's Byward Market, there was no residential there. In Montreal we went into an area that didn't have any residential development at the time. It was the multimedia city, so it was all commercial. What we're proposing in Halifax has no residential in it right now. We're open to being the first in a market for residential uses.
Let's talk about Tableau and it's black form which brings a Meisian quality to Richmond and Peter. The table-like podium design and the Shayne Dark sculpture will put a very interesting new public space on this corner. Tell us about your experience and what you, Wallman, and Dark intend to achieve here.
That was a long experience where the councilor's office was involved, and there is a lot of public benefit. We're building a park across the street, and Tableau has a huge public portion to it under the table that is a huge art piece and it was part of the proposal. There were certain guidelines for height. So we started off with a known guideline for height, and a known amount of public benefit. Then it became what is the exact height, what is the exact form, and what is the exact public benefit. So the general parameters are known. You're not going to get a 90-storey building here, but no one expects that you're going to build [as little as] 16 metres. It was also a very difficult deal to put together because we had to buy two pieces of property, and terminate 5 long term leases, so it was a very difficult assmebly.
Then the idea was we brought Rudy Wallman into the discusisons with the councilor. He wanted something that was different. We had all discussed that the existing warehouse building on the site was not of any worth and could be taken down. They changed their mind part way through, and decided that while it was not a heritage building, it was a context building, and they wanted to maintain it. So what we are doing is recreating the footprint of the building, maintaining the heritage aspects and rebuilding the front of it. The whole idea of the table was so that the residential building could sit on top of this existing building, and that is really where the form of the table and the form of the lower levels comes from, it's the existing building.
So is the table itself primarily a structural element to help you save the facade?
It's absolutely a structural element. The table itself is a massive post-tentioned transfer structure with huge beams to hold the 30 storeys above so that it could sit on legs that are not the same as the structure itself. That way it opens up a large space where this existing building will be replicated.
Tell us a bit more about the heritage component itself. How much of the façade will remain?
The structure won't remain because we're going down 5 levels, but really what's of interest to us is basically the façade element which has a certian amount of character to it and appeal to the area. It also has a bit of an Art Deco look. That's been maintained and rebuilt to a certain extent, and shifted a little bit to work with parking and entrances. It's form is being rebuilt all the way back so that it replicates what was there. The pie-shaped site opens up, and that will be the public area.
Will components be dissasembled, cleaned and then reassembled?
Some components will be, but some will be rebuilt because of the colour change. Rudy is not usually too demanding, but that's what he wanted. He wanted it to be black, as opposed to the red and brown that it is right now, so that it fits the overall design. It also had a glassy side to it, so that's been designed to work with the building, and replicate what's been there from a context purpose. Heritage Toronto never even voiced an opinion on this; it was basically council's request.
What else in terms of the design are you, Wallman, and Shane Dark looking to achieve here?
The thing about this art piece is that it is incorporated into the structure itself because it pierces the structure. It's a significant piece at 80 or 90 feet high, that is designed into the building itself, so that is where Shane and Rudy worked together along with Claude Cormier, who is doing the space across the street and also the plaza.
I suppose they are designing both spaces to communicate with each other?
Absolutely, so that there is a seemlessness, keeping in mind that theirs is public realm. We're building it, and delivering it, but then it remains city property. Ours is ours, and will stay as open public space, while privately owned, part of the condominium.
What's interesting about Tableau is that it's got many elements to it. It's got a retail element to it, it's got an office element to it, it's got residential, public art, and has many elements put together. It has 25,000 sq ft of office space which is also of interest in the podium; floors 2 and 3 are office. Floor 4 right below the table is interior amenity, and floors 5 and above is residential with the outdoor amenity on the table. Rudy had a couple of designs, the form of the table was to follow the site, and the tower was supposed to have a certain shape to it to reduce shadows, and those things were discussed with the city.
I want to ask about the multi-functional unit spaces designed by Cecconi Simone, and the movable walls. Tell us a little more about that, and how that might redefine the nature of living in an urban setting?
I've worked with Elaine Cecconi for many many years, including at Camden Lofts, and one of the things we had always talked about was closing off the kitchen, putting it away because it's so prevelant. The designs of the units are very free flowing, and every one of our projects is a little bit of an evolution from the previous one. The sliding doors became sliding walls, which eventually became completely tucked away. Certainly if you saw the model suite, you can open it all up and close it all away. Basically you can close everything off. You have your living and dining room, and the rest is walled, or you open it all up and it's open concept.
Every project is a little bit of an iteration on that. The negative on that is of course that you don't have as much wall space as you had before, like where do you put your tv? But the positive is that you really have open or closed space. You have flexible space as opposed to lots of walls.
How has the response been from purchasers?
It's been great, and we sell these units out, absolutely. We always show people where they can put their tv's. Those units that we use as model suites are the first to sell out completely.
Let's talk about River City. It has attracted a lot of interest, and is one of your most avant-garde project to date. Tell us about the challenges and the solutions to working with the site. Saucier + Perrotte of Montreal have come up with some exciting designs.
When we went after it we knew it was a really tough site. It's outside the conciousness of Torontonians: can't get to it, it's where Queen and King meet, people don't even know where that happens. It's just away, and it's also surrounded by infrastructure, it's got the ramps going through it, it's got the King Street bridge… so it's a hard site! One of the things that's going for us - I use the example of Duisburg Park in Germany, and it's an absolutely beautiful redevelopment of a former Thyssen Steel industrial complex - it's the beauty of hard and soft. In Duisburg there was a lot of hard which was super cool, and the government put in a lot of soft in the form of parks. We really wanted something that took that dichotomy and went with it. So Saucier + Perrotte had not done multi-suite residential buildings anywhere, and certainly not in Toronto, but they had a design aesthetic that brings hard and cool to certain soft areas, and really takes landscape and runs with it. I thought they would be a great asset to our team to win [development rights for this site from Waterfront Toronto].
They were probably a key reason that we got this opportunity because certainly from a design point of view they were highly regarded, even though they were outside of the box in terms of residential construction in Toronto. That, combined with our submission, got us this opportunity. They grasped the concept for this site, and how they approached it was to weave it together from the north all the way through the ramps to the south part. That's what we ran with. Also we did talk a lot about connecting under the ramps, which we were not allowed to do at the end of the day because it was city property, but which is where Waterfront Toronto got their idea to do Underpass Park.
The initial idea of connecting it for you would have been through a public park of some sort, or was it a different concept?
We were more about extending our own project, like amenity space under the ramps, so that there was a continuous flow down the street, but that didn't fly.
Are phases 1 and 2 being built concurrently, or is 2 just slightly behind 1? It's all part of one integrated base isn't it?
I think we hope to start in the summer and yes, it's staged. Because we're on the flood protection landform which is a berm, we're not allowed to build anything underground. The grading of this site is difficult because we're not allowed even a pit.
So what do you do for parking?
It's all above grade, inside the middle of this development, ground and second floor. The pool is above the parking, and there are townhouses that flank the street, so behind there. Even an elevator has a pit to it which might be a metre, so in our case we have to get above grade a meter to get to the elevator, so we have a lot of issues. Even how we deal with retail, and how we deal with footings. We are limited to anything around a foot below ground level. We can send something to bedrock which are the piles. The building sits on these tall feet, then there is one continuous structural slab on which the building sits. It's highly engineered, and it took a lot of time to deal with.
What kind of urban context are you aiming to create at River City for the subsequent neighbourhood development?
Well I think the most important thing is the open design. The urban context was defined by WaterfrontToronto, so what we did was to fit buildings into what they are building already. I'm not going to take credit for the parks, that was really WaterfrontToronto. The buldings themselves and how they were designed and how different they looked – Saucier and Perrotte are now getting other jobs in Toronto so you may not see them look so differnet in the future – but how they look is really the thing about River City. Phase one is kind of dark, they're sort of edgy dark buildings. If you looked at the original concepts, they had a string of dark buildings and then this light in the middle with the expressway running right through it. We've embraced the expressway. We're not hiding from it, we're creating a lot of language between them.
Has the Pan Am Games changed the dynamic of selling units here?
Not hugely. For one, when we sold phase one no one really knew about Pan Am, so when Pan Am came there were lots of questions. Pan Am is basically going to be predominantly market housing with some subsidized housing. We're not in a hugely liquid government situation, so government needs to recoup their costs, so there is some public housing like there is in many parts of the city, but the vast majority is market housing by really good designers and really good developers. We're a part of the West Don Lands, but we're also up on King Street, and the context for us is a little more King than the rest of Pan Am, but it will all be stiched together. Generally it's a good news story for us.
Join us next week for part two as we continue our conversation with David and Mark about the planning process in Toronto vs Montreal and Ottawa.